Snow Going Back
At 2am it was -15 degrees outside (and inside) our tent. I gradually became aware of a faint whimpering noise…and then realised it was coming from me. I was already wearing all my layers inside my sleeping bag, and there were still another five hours to make it through before sunrise. So how did I end up here, snow camping in Kosciuszko National Park in the middle of winter?
A couple of months earlier, I found myself in a flat frame of mind. A string of ongoing injuries had me thinking about all the activities I couldn’t do, and not particularly enjoying the ones I could. I was feeling unfit and uninspired, just drifting along from week to week.
It was time to make a change.
I sat down and brainstormed my ‘Adventure List’. Anything that sparked a sense of excitement went straight to the top, be that big or small, new ideas or old favourites – night time mountain biking, a yoga retreat with my girlfriends, trying out bouldering in the local climbing gym, off-road running at sunrise, borrowing my friend’s dogs for outdoor playtime. Somehow the list of things I couldn’t do didn’t seem quite so important anymore.
Anything that felt like a ‘should’ rather than a ‘hell yeah!’ got left off – which was half of my existing weekly routine. It was like a switch had been flicked, lighting up ordinary life with the potential for adventure. But out of all the ideas on the list, there was one big one I kept coming back to.
My Dad, a rugged Kiwi outdoorsman, has spent years talking wistfully about wanting to do ‘the trip of a lifetime’, a mountaineering expedition over South Island New Zealand’s Barrier Range. I called him and said “Are you serious about doing this trip – this year? Because if you are, I’ll come with you.”
Emails bounced back and forth across the Tasman. Before I knew it, it was really happening. In six months time, my Dad, my brothers, my husband Ben and I would be spending a week trekking across a glacier. Crampons, ice axes, snow camping – the works!
I drew up a gear list and blocked out hiking training weekends in the calendar. Interestingly now that I had a big picture goal to prepare for, some of the ‘should’ things on my list – like doing my physio rehab exercises – shifted back to a ‘yeah’ (if not quite a ‘hell yeah!’).
There was just one little problem. I’m bad with the cold. As in, I struggle with chilblains (stage 1 frostbite) in Sydney’s ‘winter’. Was I really going to be able to handle sleeping in the snow? There was only one way to find out. Armed with a bunch of new and borrowed alpine gear, we headed for the Snowy Mountains. If equipment maketh the mountaineer, I was well on my way there.
After sleeping in the van by the roadside we started early. Driving into an awakening world, morning light flooded the fields with gold. A quick stop for coffee and ski hire gear in Jindabyne, and we were winding our way up the mountain, the sky that uncomplicated shade of blue usually only seen in tourism brochures.
Snow dusted the tips of the trees, sketching the landscape as a study in white. It was a bluebird day, the kind that skiers wax lyrical over. I couldn’t call myself a skier – my couple of childhood snow trips were distant memories – but the optimism of the day swept over me all the same. First time backcountry skiing, with a pack? Piece of cake. Camping in the snow? That’s tonight’s problem to worry about. I still remembered ‘french fries’ and ‘pizza’ – what else could I need? Right now, there was just me and a whole mountain full of white fluffy stuff to explore.
Ben glided competently off ahead, and I waddled awkwardly after. Soon the slope started to steepen, and I looked up, and up, and up, all the way to Ramshead, a majestically towering edifice far above. “We’ll just do a quick lap before lunch”, he said enthusiastically, taking ten long steps to my every one.
Even with my new hill-climbing moves ‘reverse pizza’ and ‘sideways crab’, I made snail-like progress. After an hour of calf-cramping shuffling, the top still didn’t look any closer. Thankfully Ben realised his plan might be a little optimistic and we made a welcome diversion to the kiddies’ toboggan slope. Some gentle laps had me feeling much more in my element, and after a lunch stop for a hot Cup-of-Soup, I was ready to take on the second half of the day.
We set out on the Cascades trail, leaving the populated road behind. The hum and swish of cars and clatter of voices soon faded, swallowed by the silence of the white clad snowgum forest. Before us the valley stretched out in a vast expanse of white, divided by the smooth black ribbon of the river. There wasn’t another soul in sight.
As we slowly ascended the backbone of Bob’s Ridge, a flock of rosella parrots flitted amongst the gums, crimson feathers vibrant against the snow. Away from their chatter, the stillness took on a palpable quality. I could almost feel it, hushed and velvety against my skin. I was getting tired now, moving slower with every step. Our shadows grew long, and the sun hung low in the sky.
It was time to set up camp before the light ran out. We picked a stretch of perfect, untouched snow. Feeling somewhat criminal interrupting that perfection, we shovelled and stamped a flat section to pitch on. I had yet to be cold all day, but seeing our little yellow tent dwarfed by its icy surrounds, I felt my misgivings return with a shiver.
We ate our hot packet meals and sipped cups of tea, watching the last light slip out of the sky. There is something profoundly satisfying about reducing life down to its simplest components – food, shelter, warmth – and feeling body and mind at rest together.
The temperature was dropping rapidly, so we retreated into the tent, burrowing into our sleeping bags and turning off our headlights. Darkness closed around us like a fist.
My initial cosiness was fleeting, replaced with a creeping chill. Suffice to say the next twelve hours were ones of quiet (or, given the whimpering, not so quiet) desperation, as I experienced a first-hand demonstration of the difference between the ‘comfort’ and ‘survival’ ratings of my sleeping bag. The longest night of my life crawled by, hour by hour.
I slipped off into sleep at one point, and found myself in a colourfully tiled bathhouse, the air filled with steam and a hot bath waiting for me to sink into it. At that point, I woke up again, my breath condensing into delicate patterns of frost on the tent roof.
Yet endless as the night seemed, the earth gradually turned, and the sun eventually rose, an unbreakable pattern from time upon time. Our tent glowed yellow in the dawn light and my heart lifted. As I looked out over the layers of the early morning landscape, memories of the dark melted away, helped on their way by a hot cup of tea. A fresh day was waiting.
It was all down hill back to the van. I seemed to have the hang of things today with only one crash along the way. While I skied, I reflected. No, adventure isn’t always comfortable. But when the sun comes up, it’s always worth it. These incredible moments of undiluted experience, of simply being, are the ones I will never forget. Bring on New Zealand!
Post script: part of the reason I got so cold was insufficient ground insulation. I’m already planning the next test snow camping trip, this time with a new thermal sleeping mat AND a closed cell foam mat…wish me luck!